Moscow blast exposes anti-terrorism shortfall

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A bomb attack on Russia's busiest airport yesterday (24 January) dealt a blow to the country's ruling 'tandem' of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, clouding efforts to lure foreign investment and ensure security in an election year.

The suicide blast, which killed at least 35 people and injured about 150, underscores Putin's failure to put a stop to insurgency after more than a decade in power.

It prompted Medvedev to postpone his departure for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he is to pitch Russia as an investment destination in the hope of attracting more cash to modernise the country's energy-reliant economy.

Medvedev vowed to find and punish those responsible, in Twitter comments less than two hours after the explosion tore through the international arrivals hall.

Police said they were stepping up security.

Those promises will ring hollow for many in a nation plagued by an Islamist insurgency in the impoverished North Caucasus. Kremlin critics say the campaign is fueled by corruption and lawlessness that also helps militants slip through the cracks of law enforcement.

The blast at Domodedovo airport came less than a year after two female suicide bombers from the North Caucasus region of Dagestan set off explosives in Moscow's subway during the morning rush hour on 29 March, killing 40 people.

It eerily echoed attacks in 2004 – days before the school hostage tragedy in the North Caucasus, Christian-majority town of Beslan – when bombers bribed their way onto two flights from Domodedovo and set off explosives, downing both planes and killing 90 people.

"The strategy to deal with the root causes of the attacks has failed so far and the security services have failed to dent the militant operations," Matthew Clements of the Eurasia department at IHS Jane's Information Group in London told Reuters.

In recent years, "the militants operating in the North Caucasus have increased the scope of operations in the North Caucasus itself and they have expanded it into 'mainland' Russia," he said.

Clements saw no direct link with parliamentary elections late this year and a 2012 presidential vote, but he said there was "a heightened risk of further attacks against high-profile targets in Russia and public areas of Moscow and other cities".

It would take more persistent mayhem to derail the ruling United Russia party, which is expected to maintain its dominance of parliament in the December vote, let alone keep Putin's chosen candidate out of the Kremlin in the March 2012 vote.

'Moscow doesn't believe in tears'

Putin, who vaulted into the presidency after leading the country into a second devastating war against rebels in Chechnya in 1999, is widely expected to return to the Kremlin in 2012 or endorse Medvedev for a second term.

But the blast could undermine public confidence in both Russian leaders, who have struggled in recent months with summer wildfires and acrid smoke that killed hundreds and unprecedented racist violence in which ultranationalists targeted minorities, mostly Muslims.

Glen Howard, president of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation think-tank, said it would "further exacerbate the tensions created by the right-wing demonstrations in Moscow".

Financial analysts pointed out that investors in Russia, like its everyday citizens, are inured to terrorist attacks and that its markets have rebounded quickly from previous incidents.

"Moscow doesn't believe in tears," said John Winsell Davies, lead fund manager at Wermuth Asset Management – citing a Soviet movie title that has come to symbolise the hardened attitude of many Russians and investors in the country.

"I don't think any major investor will be deterred by a bomb attack from investing in any major Russian company," said Zsolt Papp of UBP Asset Management in Zurich.

"Russia is politically a stable country, remarkably stable, […] and other factors such as the oil price play a much bigger role," he said.

But the blast is a fresh blow to Russia's image abroad, darkened in recent weeks by a new six-year prison sentence for long-jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Medvedev seems unlikely to completely call off his trip to Davos, where his top economic aide said his main message would be that Russia's door is open to foreign investment.

Television footage from a smoke-choked Domodedovo in the aftermath of the blast sent a starkly different message: enter at your own risk.

Once a chaotic and dilapidated place with the grit of a Soviet train station, Domodedovo is a renovated Russian window on the world, serving scores of foreign airlines.

Germany's Lufthansa briefly halted flights to Moscow after the blast, and at least one British Airways flight to Domodedovo turned back to London.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

"I strongly condemn today's terrorist attack at Moscow's Domodedovo airport which caused the loss of many lives," Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, said in a statement.

"I am outraged by this criminal act and I call for those behind the suicide bomb to be tracked down and punished. I would like to convey my most sincere condolences to the families of the victims. I have sent President Medvedev a message of solidarity from the European Union," Van Rompuy concluded.

"It was with shock and great sadness that I heard about the terrorist attack at the Domodedovo airport outside Moscow this afternoon," European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said in a written statement.

"I strongly condemn this cowardly terrorist attack. I send my heartfelt condolences to the government and to the people of the Russian Federation, and in particular to the families and the loved ones of the victims. My thoughts and deepest sympathy are with them in these terrible moments," Barroso wrote.

French MEP Joseph Daul, chairman of the centre-right European People's Party group, said: "On behalf of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, I extend our sincerest sympathies to the families of those killed and injured in this savage attack on innocent people."

"There can be no justification for such an atrocity committed against civilians in a public place. I call on the Russian authorities to do everything possible to bring those responsible for this murderous act to justice," Daul added. 

Novosti agency published a factbox on the deadliest terrorist attacks in Russia:

  • On 8 September 1999, two sections of a nine-story apartment building in south-east Moscow's Guryanov Street were blown up, killing 106 people and injuring more than 200. Five days later, an eight-story residential block on Kashirskoye Highway was blown up, killing 124.
  • On 9 May 2002, an explosion during a military parade in the city of Kaspiysk, in Russia's North Caucasus Republic of Dagestan, left 44 dead and 133 wounded.
  • 23 October 2002 saw some 50 armed Chechen militants seize a theatre in Moscow where over 800 people had gathered for a performance. Over 120 hostages died when the security services gassed the building.
  • On 27 December 2002 three suicide bombers ran vehicles into the headquarters of the Chechen government in Grozny. The attack killed 83 people, and 210 were injured.
  • A bomb hit the Nevsky Express train between Moscow and St. Petersburg on 27 November 2009, killing 27 people.
  • During the morning rush hour of 29 March 2010, two female suicide bombers blew themselves up at two stations of the Moscow Metro (Lubyanka and Park Kultury). At least 40 people were killed, and more than 100 injured.

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